WNBA’s New Collective Bargaining Agreement Reminds How Poorly Players Were Treated

The new tentative collective bargaining agreement between the WNBA and WNBPA is a groundbreaking labor contract for those parties.

But that’s kind of the problem.

While the league has yet to make the full text of the CBA available (and likely won’t do so until after the contract is voted on by the league’s Board of Governors), hand-selected tenets of the new CBA are public. Both sides of the table have a vested interest in presenting the public-relations friendly version of the agreement. And make no mistake, there are some incremental victories from a labor perspective.

The max salary for players is up 83 percent from the 2019 season, to $215,000. The league has committed to raising cash compensation by 53 percent. The league estimates that average cash compensation will reach $130,000. Players now only have to complete five years of service to reach the promised land of unrestricted free agency. The “core player” designation, which attorney Kelsey Trainor accurately predicted would not go away entirely, has had its effect reduced. In the previous agreement, teams could slap that tag on a player four times in her career. That limit drops to just twice by the 2022 season.

The wins go beyond the straight cash, however.

The league will now guarantee first-class air travel and individual hotel rooms for all players,  as well as paying out full salaries while players are on maternity leave. Other familial benefits include a childcare stipend and reimbursement for adoption costs or reproductive services that may include players freezing their zygotes, such as the Seattle Storm’s Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird recently did. Other player benefits include access to counseling on intimate partner abuse and mental health concerns. The WNBA has also committed resources to help players market themselves and find jobs to carry them into their lives after basketball.

UNCASVILLE, CT – JULY 20: Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird (10) and Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart (30) wait to check into the game during a WNBA game between Seattle Storm and Connecticut Sun on July 20, 2018, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT. Seattle defeated Connecticut 78-65. (Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire)

While that all sounds spectacular, there are several important points of context to keep in mind.

This agreement still does not guarantee a path for WNBA players as a group to claim half of basketball revenues. Like the previous CBA, the road to doing so depends on the league reaching certain performance thresholds. Those include the growth of broadcast rights contracts, licensing deals and marketing partnerships. While players may be optimistic about reaching those lines of demarcation that would trigger a 50/50 revenue split, it’s out of their hands to a large degree. The WNBA hasn’t always been stellar about marketing itself, nor helping players do the same.

Currently, only two active WNBA players can claim their own signature shoes. League rules allow players to sign their own endorsement deals in regards to footwear, but the league has done little to incentivize even its current partners Jordan and Nike to collaborate with more of its star players. That may increase with a $1.6 million commitment to marketing in the offseason, but it’s unclear yet to what extent money from that pool will go toward promoting players instead of teams.

The league’s marketing arm will extend to include an in-season tournament called the Commissioner’s Cup, which is a great way to bring in new sponsors. There will be cash incentives for teams who fare well in that event. The quicker timeline to free agency and reduction in the core player designation also will be an off-season marketing tool, as few things are as good at creating a buzz when games aren’t being played.

All these positive steps toward better working conditions for these athletes come with a caveat, however: It should have been this way all along.

A point that was made several times on a conference call discussing the CBA announcement Tuesday is that the WNBA isn’t the NBA or any other professional sports league. The terms of this new contract are customized for the WNBA at this juncture and it’s indeed inappropriate to view it through the lens of other similar entities.

While that’s sound logic, it reinforces the point that it’s taken over two decades for these athletes to gain access to the working conditions they should have had in the league’s first season.

Just two seasons ago, Skylar Diggins-Smith hid her pregnancy from her employer, the Dallas Wings, to avoid a drop in compensation. Last season, Los Angeles Sparks head coach Derek Fisher, an NBA veteran, was one of many voices lamenting the struggles of flying commercial after games. Before this new agreement, players had to share hotel rooms on road trips and share one-bedroom apartments with their children in the cities their franchises call home.

UNCASVILLE, CT – AUGUST 14: Dallas Wings guard Skylar Diggins-Smith (4) fast breaks during a WNBA game between Dallas Wings and Connecticut Sun on August 14, 2018, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT. Connecticut won 96-76. (Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire)

Though the path to a revenue split may be clearer and shorter now, the league has and still refuses to respond accordingly to one of the elementary principles of American economic theory: that if a person’s labor produces revenue, that person is entitled to a share of that revenue commensurate with the part their labor played in the production of that revenue. As the players are the entire reason broadcasters send camera crews, fans buy tickets and Nike manufactures jerseys, a 50/50 revenue split with the owners would actually be generous on the players’ part.

After 23 seasons enduring these conditions, it isn’t hard to understand why players would be part of a PR narrative that spins benefits and compensation they’ve actually been earning all along as a tremendous step forward. There is no lie of commission, but rather an omission, to that spin.

The possibility of a player earning as much as half a million dollars in a season is tremendous progress! The point is, however, that such language should have been part of the original CBA in 1999. Psychology has shown time and again that when people are unaware that better options exist, they adapt to find contentment with the best-case scenario that is realistically available to them.

Only when they become aware of greener grass does that which they’ve seen up to that point start to appear as its true shade of brown.

Through this new CBA, there is new hope that more WNBA players might see more of that green, in both a figurative and literal sense. It could be the realization of nearly a quarter of a century of work toward an acceptable set of circumstances for these athletes. At the same time, it’s damning commentary that for over two decades, the same powers that have now relented on many points of this contract have bent over backward to avoid investing in those athletes at this level.

These concessions made by the league to the players aren’t as much of a win for the workers as they are a move toward balancing the capital vs. labor dynamic in the WNBA. Hopefully, it won’t take another quarter of a century for true balance in that relationship to be realized.